Revolution, H. L. Mencken

From the Baltimore Evening Sun, Dec. 22, 1930

It is the law of political revolution that the actual upset of a government is always preceded by concessions to the malcontent party. So long as Porfirio Diaz ruled Mexico like a house of correction he was perfectly safe, but the moment he released Francisco Madero from jail and began to talk of reforming the judiciary, dividing the big estates and widening the suffrage his doom was scaled, and within a year he was a fugitive and Madero was President. So with the Czar of Russia. He signed his own death warrant when he signed the decree calling the first Duma: even if a World War had never come he would have lost his throne inevitably, and his head with it. So in many another case, ancient and modern. There has never been a successful revolution out of the clear sky. Always the doomed despot has prepared for it by making concessions to his enemies.

The psychology behind this phenomenon is so simple that even a psychoanalyst should be able to penetrate it. What protects the despot, so long as he lays about him boldly, is the fact that very few men, even among rebels, have any appreciable courage. Whether physically or morally, they seldom attack a power that can really hurt them, and is plainly willing and eager to do so. But the moment that power shows any sign of fading into weakness, they become very daring and are hot for defying it. Next to outright abdication, the chief sign of such weaken- ing, at least to most men, is a readiness to compromise. They have no belief whatever in the excuses commonly given for it- generosity, a sense of justice, conversion to new ideas, and so on. They always see it, and perhaps quite rightly, as simply a cloak for fear.

Thus the despot who hedges, no matter how exalted his motives may be in his own view, appears to his enemies as one who has lost his grip, and at the first chance they fly at his throat, usually to the tune of loud protestations of altruism. Ile leaders among them appear suddenly to be full of courage, for courage is always a relative matter, and the man who runs from a lion in the full possession of its faculties will pull the tail of a lion down with the palsy. Simultaneously, the camp-followers and me-toos, hitherto discreetly silent, begin to beat heroically on wash tubs and to demand a chance to get at him.